Human Journey

Who Are You Calling a Bird Brain?

Bird brain was considered an insult until a recent discovery that bird brains have a similar structure to that of the mammalian neocortex (the cognitive processing center). Researchers have begun looking for, and finding, avian intelligence in the large-brained species: crows use tools, rooks cooperate to get food, and western scrub-jays plan for the future. But is intelligence restricted to species with large brains?

That’s what I want to find out!

I’m looking at two highly innovative species: large-brained New Caledonian crows and smaller-brained great-tailed grackles. I am investigating what advantages a large brain gives the crows when comparing their cognitive task performance with that of the grackles.

Great-tailed grackle
Photo copyright Adam Lewis

I’ll study wild grackles in Santa Barbara, California and wild-caught aviary crows in New Caledonia. Luckily, I have a National Geographic Society / Waitt Grant, which makes this expensive research possible.

New Caledonian crow
Photo copyright Jolyon Troscianko
Where in the ocean is New Caledonia?
Where in the ocean is New Caledonia?

I’m about to leave the Santa Barbara summer behind for the tropical winter of New Caledonia, but I’ll stay in touch. I will be posting a video blog about once per week from New Caledonia called Life in the Field. To start this adventure, I show you what it takes to pack for such a trip in the video in this post. Whew! I’m glad that’s over!

What do you want to know about life in the field on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Let me know and I’ll see if I can cover your topic in my next video. Even though I’ll only have internet access once every couple of days, it will be nice to feel connected to a larger community while I spend two months at a tiny field station.

Leaving for the Santa Barbara airport in a few,



And now for a bit of Terry Pratchett…

“The Death of Rats skipped across the snow, slid down a drain pipe and landed on the roof of a shed. There was a raven perched there.

It was staring disconsolately at something.


‘Look at that, willya?’ said the raven rhetorically. It waved a claw at a bird feeder in the garden below. ‘They hangs up half a bloody coconut, a lump of bacon rind, a handful of peanuts in a bit of wire and they think they’re the gods’ gift to the nat’ral world. Huh. Do I see eyeballs? Do I see entrails? I think not. Most intelligent bird in the temperate latitudes an‘ I gets the cold shoulder just because I can’t hang upside down and go twit, twit. Look at robins, now. Stroppy little evil buggers, fight like demons, but all they got to do is go bob-bob-bobbing along and they can’t move for bread crumbs. Whereas me myself can recite poems and repeat many hum’rous phrases–’”

(Pratchett 1996, pp.43-44, Hogfather)


For my PhD at the University of Cambridge, I studied what birds in the crow family do after they fight: do they make up with each other or go to someone else for support? Now I am a Junior Research Fellow at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With the help of a National Geographic Society / Waitt Grant, I study what birds know about their physical and social worlds. (Photo copyright Rod Rolle)
  • VitalBodies

    You did not link to the blog you mentioned?
    I have been hanging out with a crow in my yard that is patiently trying to teach me crow edicate and the code of conduct needed.
    I do not feed the bird. The challenge, to each do what we do amongst each other.
    At this point, I have gotten to where it will position itself between me and my work.
    I have to enter the work area correctly.

    If I do so the crow stays and forages, if not it squawks or flys off or both.

    • Hi VitalBodies,
      The blog I refer to begins with the very post you are reading 🙂 Future posts will be linked to this one so keep your eye out!

      Crows have such interesting behaviors – people often tell me stories about their crow encounters. There are so many things we still don’t know about them!

      My best,

  • Mikal Deese, CWR

    Hi, Corina! I have some experience with Great-tailed Grackles and would like to warn you about assuming that they are representative of ‘small brained’ birds. As a wild bird rehabilitator, I’ve had opportunity to raise or rehabilitate over one hundred species. Great-tailed have long thoughtful childhoods relative to many other species. I watched one fledgling spend an entire day working out the physics of floatation. I try to give the babies rich environments, with exposure to many natural elements and foods. He/she methodically put things in the water, then observed that some things sank (pebbles), some things floated (sticks), some got soggy (Cheerios), some simply got wet. It became a game for me to find more stuff for him, and he proceeded to experiment with each item. It was fascinating to watch.
    Allow me recommend doves, or finches for your dimmer bulbs. All the best to you- Mikal

    • Hi Mikal,
      Thank you so much for your wonderful insights! It is great to hear more about great-tailed grackle behavior from someone who has lots of experience. Actually, the fact that they do seem smart (despite having a smaller brain) is one of the reasons I’m going to study them. If we are going to look for complex cognition outside of the large brained species, then grackles are a great place to start!

      Thanks again!

  • James Doty

    Hi Corina, I have been interested in crows for some time, and have noticed a similar capability with our local great tailed grackle population; they kinda recognize faces. I’ve been attacked a few times by a flock in a section of our downtown Austin area at an intersection of 6th street and Lavaca. It happens every time I pass this block. It was so severe that I once called the police. I noticed that other people would walk by unmolested. When the police arrived (the grackles had me pinned against a wall, long story) they informed me that the city had hired a company that had come out recently and “shocked” the trees with what was described as a cattle-prod, and that pedestrians, only some not all, were being attacked by the flock. At this moment there are baby birds in nests all over the city that have been killed by this action, and I think the grackles are “retaliating”. The police informed me that this shock scattered the adults and killed the babies… I immediately thought of crows and facial recognition, and maybe I was considered a threat and that I looked like an employee. The calls were scolding calls, and I AM NOT KIDDING when I say there where close to 50 birds surrounding me, all flying in from the surrounding city blocks.
    I’ll look closer at them if you would like me too; maybe they have these traits you are looking to compare with crows; they have many different calls, like mockingbirds, and are omnivorous like crows. Maybe I can notice some tool usage or mourning .
    Let me know how your research goes.

    • Hi James,
      Wow, thank you so much for the grackle observations! I had no idea they did these kinds of behaviors. It might be worth investigating facial recognition in this species given your experience. Yes, please do let me know if you see any other interesting behaviors! I will be posting research updates at my twitter page (@LoganCorina) and my website so do stay in touch if you find something interesting.

      My best,

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